State Sen. Betsy Johnson was right.
A licensed commercial pilot from Scappoose, Johnson suspected the three 195-foot-tall liquefied natural gas tanks planned for the Oregon LNG facility on Warrenton's Skipanon Peninsula would intrude into protected airspace around the nearby Astoria Regional Airport.
As it turns out, the tanks protrude 30 feet past the airport's protective boundary.
That means Oregon LNG will need a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to build the tanks, which are about the height of a 17-story building and nearly as wide as a football field is long.
The Port of Astoria, which runs the airport and leases the Skipanon Peninsula site to Oregon LNG, hosted a meeting at the Red Building Monday to discuss the related public notice sent out by the FAA. The meeting was attended by about 40 people, along with Johnson, state Sen. Debbie Boone, D-Cannon Beach, Oregon LNG Chief Executive Officer Peter Hansen, two representatives from the Oregon Department of Aviation, Port Director Jack Crider, Port Director of Operations Ron Larsen and the Port Commission.
The FAA is accepting public comments for the next week on three Oregon LNG applications for waivers that would allow the tanks to enter protected airspace.
Johnson said because the application wasn't widely announced, the public didn't know about it and has missed much of the public comment period. She and Boone agreed to join the Port in asking the FAA for an extension of the public comment period to allow concerned citizens to sound off on the issue.
During a public comment session Monday, local residents, including several pilots, raised a long list of concerns about what the tankers would mean for aircraft flying in and out of the airport - particularly in low visibility and bad weather.
Gene Hill, chief pilot for Arctic Air Service, the company that owns the helicopter used by the Columbia River Bar Pilots to board inbound and outbound ships, said his company does 60 to 70 percent of the airport operations right now.
"We're the bad-weather boat for the bar pilots," he said.
He said initially he didn't have a problem with Oregon LNG being granted a waiver to build the tanks, but then he realized the obstructions could force his company to reroute its flight plans to areas where it would generate a noise problem for the surrounding community.
He said he thinks the FAA should deny the waiver unless it can do a more complete review of the impacts the tanks will have on aircraft flying in and out of the airport.
John Glen, a local helicopter pilot, said he worried about flights getting shut down because of security risks.
Hansen said he has checked with other LNG facilities across the country and believes the terminal would not trigger any special restrictions on aircraft.
Johnson hinted that Oregon LNG might commission an additional study of the aviation impacts of the company's development.
"We're just relying on Mr. Hansen's opinion on all sorts of issues," Johnson said after the meeting. "If bar pilots can't get out, if they can't bring ships in, the economic ripple effect will be felt all the way back to the Midwest."
John Overholser, the fixed base operator at the airport, said there is a commonly used flight path that runs right over the proposed LNG tanks.
"It's a great advantage to this airport to have a low approach from the north, and I feel these LNG tanks would interfere with that," he said.
Astoria resident Carl Dominey, a vocal LNG critic, told leaders they would be "tempting fate" if they allowed LNG tanks to be built inside the protected airspace.
Brent Foster, executive director of the LNG opponent group Columbia Riverkeeper, told the Port to ask the FAA to deny Oregon LNG's request for a waiver.
"You can do that when it puts the community you're elected to represent at greater risk," he said.
Hansen said because the facility is near an airport, the storage tanks are required to be built for "full containment," which means the LNG will be stored in a steel container inside a concrete bunker.
"If someone flies a Cessna-130 into our tanks, it will bounce off," Hansen said. "It will not make the tanks collapse."
If a plane misses the tanks and hits supporting pipes or other infrastructure, he said, it could cause a fire, but shutting off the supply of gas would snuff it out.
During a presentation, Hansen explained that the tanker height has increased to ensure they can survive an earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. They had to be set on a movable base to allow them to move if the ground moves underneath, he said, and additional room had to be added to the top of the tank to allow for LNG "sloshing."
Via telephone, Bruce Beard, the FAA's national operations manager for obstruction evaluation services, explained the process his agency will follow before deciding to issue a waiver.
The FAA assumes the tanks are an adverse impact on the airport until it completes a study of the proposal and collects public comments. Then the agency reviews the record and makes a decision.
But the law governing the review process is "very narrowly written," he said. "It only allows us to take into consideration aviation comments. ... If 100 people sign a letter saying we simply don't want these tanks there, if there's nothing that pertains to aviation, I don't want to say we ignore it, but we simply can't take it into consideration."
The Port can ask the FAA to deny the waiver, he said, and anyone who comments on the public notice has appeal rights.